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GLAS Education Interns Maire Lucero and Sofiia Lauten were in need of a summer project. Given a chance to sonify pulsars, they thought, “why not?” and dived right in.

“I realized I had no idea how sonification and Astronify works,” Sofiia said. “And then this was presented and I thought, ‘this is ideal.’ So yeah, we jumped into it.”

A color photo of a young woman with dark hair  to the left in a white dress and black dots speaking and a young woman standing to right of large television with long blond hair wearing a dark-colored plaid shirt, her face turned to the television screen which has an image with the words Pulsar Sonification.
Maire Lucero, left, and Sofiia Lauten, by video screen, explain the process of turning pulsar data into usable sound.

Sonification is the translation of visual data into notes and tones to make it accessible to the blind and visually impaired. Astronify, a Python coding language which contains tools for turning astronomical data into useful sounds, is  one of the sonification programs they are using. This is more than just a summer project, the two interns said during a late-July presentation at GLAS Education. This is a chance to produce a tool that will be widely accepted and used to analyze and interpret astronomical data.

“Astronomical graphs and images are often inaccessible to blind and low vision students and researchers. This project presents itself as the first accessible pulsar research interface for the visually impaired,” Sofiia said. “This project could help increase equality in the STEM field for blind people. And with the data more accessible, opportunity for growth and engagement increases with greater ability to analyze and to answer important questions that pulsars are related to, like measurement of cosmic distances or the detection of Einstein’s predicted gravitational waves or even the measurements of the acceleration of the galaxy,” she added.

First, some explanation of a pulsar:

A pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star, which is the remnant of a star 10 to 25 times more massive than our Sun which has gone supernova. The surface has blown away while the interior has been compressed into an unbelievably dense mass. A teaspoon of pulsar material would weigh about a billion tons on Earth. The once massive star is crushed to between 12 and 24 miles across and spins at a rate of up to 566 revolutions per second. The spin creates a powerful magnetic field with the magnetic poles spewing X-rays, gamma-rays, radio waves and even visible light from the opposite sides of the spinning pulsar, like the beams of a lighthouse. Usually detected by radio telescopes, pulsars seem to blink or pulsate at a regular rate. No one has actually “seen” a pulsar. Pulsars are photographed using telescopes that detect X-rays, radio waves or gamma rays. These telescopes gather data that are translated into data which are then further translated into visual graphs and images. 

Maire and Sofiia have linked up with Pranet Sharma, a Yale undergraduate researcher who is trying to sonify the data, turning it into sounds and tones that can be as recognizable to the ear as shapes and colors are to the eye. 

“Pranet is a rising second year student at Yale and he is working with Dr. Maura McGlaughlin. They were creating the first pulsar research interfaces made accessible to blind people, ever,” Maire said. McLaughlin is a University of West Virginia physics professor who studies pulsars and neutron stars. The sonification project is based on data collected by NANOGgrav, an international collaboration of radio astronomers. And a lot of data was collected.

“There’s roughly 600 sonification files that are going to be released, so Pranet needed help sonifying all these folders and that is where we come in,” Sofiia said. The challenge is to find the right sounds and variations to properly translate the data, she said.

Young woman with dark hard wearing a white dress with black polka dots, her hands raised up to her chest and speaking.
Maire Lucero

Maire said each of the files contains four pulsar information graphs which the interns use for data sonification. One graph shows the magnitude, or “brightness,” of the pulsar. The next shows the time over which the data was collected. The next tells the frequency of the pulsar (revolutions per second) and the fourth shows dispersion of the energy ejected by the pulsar’s magnetic field.

“The most important thing is how to sonify,” Sofiia said. “This requires some graphing that provides a picture of the data.”

Sofiia then played some of the sonification they had completed. It sounded like carnival music heard at a distance, a bit busy and discordant but not unpleasant. Maire said she and Sofiia were still trying to improve the data’s musical quality. 

To properly interpret the data, the interns had to delve into the science of pulsars. This meant a number of online meetings with Pranet to ask about the data he was sending their way. Communication was sometimes difficult. But Maire said she and Sofiia asked enough questions and did enough research that they were able to understand the data.

Among the problems the interns faced:

To solve those problems, Maire and Sofiia decided to:

Young woman with blonde curly hair, her fingers intertwined in front of her as she is speaking.
Sofiia Lauten

The sonification process requires plotting pixels on a graph and then plotting notes based on the pixels, Sofiia said. “What we do through Astronify is we extract the needed tables and we organize them into proper format,” said Maire. “We sonify them and we output four sound files per star.” The results are then put on the NANOGraf website. 

“So, we are operating as a mass production system,” Sofiia said. “As Maire noted earlier, we have five folders so far, with probably more to come in.”

Maire said their short-term goal is to sonify 60 files. They have currently completed 30 of those 60. “And after completion of this we’ll probably be given another task, like another 60 to sonify.”

“Now we really know our path moving forward,” said Sofiia.

The long-term goal is to publish the process used to sonify the pulsar data and have it used for actual research, said Sofiia. “We’re hoping to get involved in the project beyond just the data processing with the potential to build a little platform on the (NANOGraf) website where new pulsar data could be put in by anyone and be sonified automatically,” she said. 

Astrophysicists have identified more than 3,000 pulsars so far. To sonify all of that data, the website platform would need to make the process efficient and accessible, Sofiia said.

There are organizations that might be interested in what the GLAS interns are doing, including astronomy accessibility journals, the American Astronomical Society, the Pulsar Science Collaboratory, schools for the blind, NANOGrav and Sonification World Chat, which was started by Kate Meredith.

“It will help BVI students get exposure to science at a younger age and make STEM  education more equal,” Maire said.

Kate Meredith, GLAS Education director, said she was impressed with the energy and intelligence Maire and Sofiia brought to the project.

“There is no mentor in this office who understands this project,” Kate said. “The purpose of this one was to get a chance to mess with some code that they were going to need for another project.” But the two interns dug into the science, learning about pulsars even as they learned about turning astronomical data into usable sound files.

Maire and Sofiia said they will continue to work on the sonification computer code.

Maire said they want the project to be about more than just accessibility, but also as a new way for researchers to understand data. Sound data might be better revealing patterns missed by just looking at points on a line. It could also standardize sonification, making it more popular with researchers.

“This project may also help make sonification more consolidated and fine tuned as a field,” Sofiia said.

“This is a very exciting opportunity,” Maire said.

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